Towards an Identity Model of Habits: Part I

My buddy James is a vegetarian.
I am not a morning person.
I’m a reader of fantasy books.

Remember those statements, ’cause I’m going to reference ’em later.

In the last few years I’ve been experimenting with various models of self improvement. Before I officially started this project I assumed that motivation was a significant catalyst for self change. After seeing it as a perennial problem (I can get psyched up for gym going starting on New Years, but it peters out pretty quickly, and the cycle repeats next year) I switched to other things.

I dabbled in gamification, because I saw its addictive properties as lowering willpower thresholds. Like motivation, it worked, but only for a while.

I’ve since focused on habits for the last two years, and though I’ve had a great deal of success, they’re only foolproof in relatively basic and linear behaviors. When things get complicated that paradigm just isn’t enough.

How are they not enough?
The linear model – what BJ Fogg advocates, of starting a Tiny Habit, reaching that hook point of automaticity, then naturally increasing difficulty, repetitions, or length of time until you achieve mastery – doesn’t seem to fully work all the time. Or rather it really falls a part when you’re pushing habits to mastery, which I see as another vector of effort (regimention/willpower and endurance/forming a habit being the other two vectors).

That vector involves plateaus in skill and the maddening frustration of constantly doing a task that is at least slightly above your current level.

It also runs into trouble when you’re dealing with families of skills. I advocate this not only because families can support each other, but in a world where time is of essence (we die, our bodies wear out), skills that have an accrual across time are necessary to start now to gain the benefits of daily minimums across time. If I start a habit of cardio 30 minutes a day, I may not master it. I might not get my goal of a six pack until I nail my eating habit. But for as long as I’m exercising, I’m accruing secondary cardio “points”.

Pushing skills in the vector of skill advancement throws a huge wrench into the equation because of habit harmonics. A dissonance starts – extra effort in one skill affects the solidity of other habits.

But the biggest problem with my current model is that it doesn’t attenuate in more complicated behaviors.

Let’s go back to the original three statements.

My buddy James is a vegetarian. When we go out and eat he avoids meat. In all scenarios. After the bars while tipsy and ordering pizza late at night, when going to a restaurant with friends with crappy vegetarian options, even in one place that had amazing pork tacos.

I do the same thing with fantasy books. It’s not as though I decide to read them – I HAVE to read them. It’s not even a choice. I need to have those few minutes before bed to scratch that itch and if I don’t have at least an option loaded on my Kindle, I start to get all itchy. The world is not right.

The inverse is important to analyze – I’m not a morning person. My waking up early is either a fluke or a deliberate preparation if I need it. Morning people are morning people because they enjoy it or they just are that way – it’s totally independent from fluctuating conditions. If they’re out late the night before, they still wake up early.

For all three – it’s an identity that’s welded in. It’s not what you do, it’s part of who you are, which not only makes it stronger, it also is able to somehow adapt incredibly well to changing conditions. Choice is also almost entirely scrubbed out of the equation.

For me this becomes an issue with eating and getting up early. All the other habits I consider foundational are easy. Working out – no problem, barring travel, it’s once a day at a certain time. Same with writing, meditating, and if I add flossing or recording finances. It’s a matter of if-then protocols – implementation intentions.

For eating that gets insanely complicated – it’s multiple times a day, across changing circumstances, etc. I believe it’s the reason I’ve had to scrap the habit several times, even when I’ve maintained it for close to a year. It just never stuck. And this is a big problem – eating is incredibly important for health, energy, and weight loss. It also has the biggest impact for whether I can socialize well later in the program – I don’t want to go out to meet people and, because of lack of willpower, blow out a previous habit of making good food decisions.

mask by 派脆客 Lee, tack by Zaheer Mohiuddin, welder by Per Hortlund